Alabama, Oklahoma still have a lot to prove

For all of their storied histories, Alabama and Oklahoma are approaching their meeting in the Allstate Sugar Bowl as teams with a lot to prove.

For third-ranked Alabama (11-1), it’s showing the Crimson Tide can bounce back from the shocking last-second Iron Bowl loss to Auburn that derailed what had seemed like an inevitable march to a third straight national championship. It’s also about not repeating a dismal game against Utah under similar circumstances in the 2009 Sugar Bowl.

“We can’t be worried about what happened a couple of weeks ago,” Bama senior wide receiver Kevin Norwood said. “We must focus on what we’ve got to do to finish strong like we always preach.

“We’ve got to remind everybody who the best team is.”

And for No. 11 Oklahoma (10-2), it’s showing that the Sooners’ last-minute Bedlam victory against Oklahoma State, which lifted them out of an anticipated second-tier bowl berth, did not leave them overmatched.

“I saw some poll saying 89 percent of America is voting for Bama to win this game,” Oklahoma senior running back Brennan Clay said. “The only state that voted of us was the Okies. If we can come out with this win, it definitely puts us back in the national spotlight.”

The teams arrive Friday to begin final preparations for Wednesday’s game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

But as usual, leaving nothing to chance, Alabama coach Nick Saban had his frontline players play a simulated game Monday before the Tide took a brief Christmas break.

“All the skill players and all the people handling the ball haven’t been hit in 33 days,” said Saban, who noted that offensive production goes up in bowl games because the tackling isn’t as strong, but there are also more turnovers because players aren’t used to being tackled. “There’s just something about getting back into the routine of playing the season.”

Attention to detail has been a trademark of Saban teams since that 31-17 loss to Utah four years ago. Since then, Alabama is 7-0 in postseason games, including a 49-7 rout of Michigan State in the 2011 Capitol One bowl, the only one of those seven games that wasn’t for the Southeastern Conference or national championship.

Obviously it helps that the opponent has the stature of an Oklahoma instead of a Central Florida, which would have been the case had Northern Illinois and Fresno State not blown their chances to be the final BCS busters.

“It’s always great to play a team that has the same (kind of) tradition as us,” senior linebacker Tana Patrick said. “We know they’re going to go out and bring their best game.

“They have a lot of momentum, so it’s going to be a fun, physical game. We’ve just got to bring our ‘A’ game.”

But if Oklahoma’s tradition — seven national championships, 44 conference championships, nine BCS bowl appearances, 27 bowl victories and five Heisman winners — resonates with the Alabama players, the Sooners’ recent history has not been as sparkling.

This is Oklahoma’s first BCS bowl since the 2010 season, and in BCS bowl games — all under Bob Stoops — Oklahoma is 3-5, with only one of the victories coming since 2003.

In last year’s Cotton Bowl, Oklahoma was humiliated by Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M 41-13. The Sooners’ two losses this season were one-sided — 36-20 to Texas and 41-12 to Baylor, although they did rally to upset Oklahoma State, denying the Cowboys the Big 12 title and an outside shot at the national championship game.

Still, it’s a small wonder the Sooners are 15-point underdogs in the Sugar Bowl, or that ESPN’s Paul Finebaum told The Oklahoman:

“I don’t give Oklahoma any chance in this game; I really don’t. I’ve always been a big fan of Bob Stoops, but I’ll be shocked if Alabama doesn’t just come out and unleash unholy anxiety on the Sooners.”

And many Oklahoma fans seem to feel the same way.

The Oklahoman asked readers their opinion of the matchup, and responses included: “As an OU fan, I’m pumped about (a) BCS bowl. As a football realist, I’m not excited about playing the best team in the country.”

Wrote another: “Be careful what you wish for (coach Stoops) because you just got it.”

Still, fans of both teams are expected to fill the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in far greater numbers turned out for the Michigan-Virginia Tech game in 2012 and the Florida-Louisville game last season.

And the Oklahoma players seem determined to restore the Sooners’ status.

“It’s going to be a great challenge,” Oklahoma defensive back Gabe Lynn said. “But we’re kind of sick of being overlooked.”